The Accuracy of Memory - Did It Really Happen How You Think It Did?

Now, where did I put that car?

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Now, where did I leave my car?

Several years ago, while working as a teacher I was heading home one after a parents’ consultations evening. With only one class of pupils in the year group, I had finished early. For the same reason I had also arrived later than most teachers and the car park had been full, so I had parked on a little road, just in front of the school garage. My car was not where I had left it.

The first thought that came into my mind was that the janitor must have moved my car because it was in the way. Of course, I instantly knew that was impossible.

This was in the days before everyone had cell phones, so after checking around the side of the garage, through the car park and under a few stones, I headed back into the school.

The first person I met was the janitor. “You back?” he said. “I thought you were away home.”

I told him about my missing car, and he led me on another hunt around the school grounds, even though as we walked he explained that he had seen a car being driven away from where mine had been parked.

“Are you sure you left it there?” he asked as we stood scratching our heads and looking at the gap between cars.

I was pretty sure, yes, I had left it there, and by then I was pretty sure my car had been stolen.

I’ve used this story not to convince you that both the janitor and I are mad, but to illustrate the way minds work. We tell ourselves stories about our lives every minute of every day and the meanings we give events shape how we remember them. But that meaning isn’t necessarily fixed in stone. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “We’ll laugh at this in years to come.” When we say this as we go experience events that we consider traumatic, we are reassuring ourselves that things will improve and that one day this current difficulty won’t seem such a big deal.

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Memory fragments

What I remember most from the night my car was stolen is a sense of watching a drama unfold, and of feeling a little detached from it all. When I went back into the school for a second time someone phoned the police – probably me but I can’t say that for sure. Mostly my memories of that night are fragments: the janitor’s face as we stood in the dark, the brightly lit school corridors, the face of another teacher whose car door had been damaged, myself sitting in a little room as a passing teacher said, “I thought you’d gone home hours ago.”

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Flashbulb Memories

Nobody quite knows why we remember things the way we do, though many have tried to fathom it. Back in 1977, psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik created the term: “flashbulb memory” to describe the vivid images people often have of surprising and highly important events. If you are old enough you probably have memories of where you were when you heard the news that John Kennedy had been shot, and most of us have similar memories of where we were and what we were doing when we heard that the World Trade Center had been hit.

For several years scientists believed that these memories were more accurate than everyday memories, and the vivid images most people recall seemed to back this belief. But it turns out that even though people are generally confident they do remember these events correctly, the accuracy of these flashbulb memories is no more than of any other kind.

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The President’s Memory

In the months following 9/11, President Bush was frequently asked how he remembered hearing the news of the attack, and on several occasions his answers were taped. These taped accounts show significant inconsistencies in his stories – which led to some people leaping to conclude that he was telling lies and that some conspiracy was at work. The reason for his inaccuracies is far simpler and more mundane: presidents’ memories are no better than anyone else’s.

The Manhattan Memory Project

Among those who saw the Twin Towers fall was neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps. Along with colleagues John Gabrieli and William Hirst, she gathered information from 3000 participants in the week after the attack. In the study, known as The Manhattan Project, participants noted information on their personal circumstances at the time, and on their feelings. One year later and again three years after the attacks the team repeated the surveys. They found that after a year people were about 60% accurate with details, and by three years this fell to 50%. People tended to be more accurate with details of where they were than with how they felt.

The Role of Emotions in Memory

Using MRI scans the Manhattan Memory Project also found that the emotional center of the brain – the amygdala – was more active in people who had been within 4 kilometers of the 9/11 attack when they recalled the event three years on than it was in those who had been further away. From this the scientists conclude that it is possible that close personal involvement may create the necessary emotional stimulation that could be what creates the vivid memories described as flashbulb memories. The Manhattan project is still on going, checking the accuracy of memories 10 years on.

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

The findings of Phelps and her team are consistent with what psychologists Neisser and Harsch discovered when they interviewed people one day and three years after the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster in 1986. One example of inaccuracy Neisser and Harsch found was that three years on more people claimed to have first heard the news of the disaster on television. Since footage of the crash was frequently shown on TV at the time, these people most likely did see it at some point, but confused the time at which that happened. This is a very common inaccuracy in memory, so much so that it has a name: the “time slice error.” We remember the events, but get muddled about when they happened, or join several memories together. (This is most likely what happened to President Bush.)

How memory works

Filling in the gaps

Returning to my own memory of the night my car was stolen: in truth I’m not actually sure if the janitor did say what I’ve written, and it’s only as I went through this article a second time that I began to vaguely recall that I had said goodnight to him as I left the school building. There are aspects of the memory that appear as images in my mind and other aspects that come more as an aural memory, and then there is a sense of atmosphere, the dramatic feeling of the event. In telling the story I have filled in the gaps of memory with what I know happened but have little recollection of, or with what I think probably happened. This is exactly what scientists say creates the inaccuracies in our memories. Where there are gaps in our memories, we fill them with what we assume must have happened, and with that it seems reasonable to believe happened.

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More on Memory

Read this hub by RealHousewife on memory: Memory - The Short & Long Terms of It


More on how the mind selectively notices information based on belief

If our memories are so inaccurate…

To my mind, the implications of this are enormous. If, as the Manhattan project found, after one year we have only 60% accuracy of memory of events as significant as 9/11, then what exactly is the point in holding a grudge against people in our everyday lives? Usually we stay angry with someone because of how we think their actions made us feel, but memories of emotions are even more inaccurate than other memories, so the chances are that more often than not we are stewing over something that never existed. I’m not saying that events such as 9/11 didn’t happen: clearly it did, and clearly many people were deeply affected by it. But holding onto the feelings of distress about that or any other event will not bring back those who died, and nor will it resolve tensions. On both an individual level, and internationally there is much anger and distrust in our world. Perhaps it’s time to let go.

Of course, the way our brains are wired, that’s easier said than done. Participants in the Challenger study did not instantly change their new memories when faced with the original stories that they themselves had written down. The new “memories” remained intact. But we can choose to be willing to change, and that willingness can make a huge difference to how we see the world. Willingness starts with accepting that we don’t know everything, even about our own pasts, and it starts with questioning our beliefs that keep us locked in the behaviour patterns of fear and mistrust. In my next hub in this series I will write about a way to question beliefs that I personally have found invaluable in enabling me to let go of old fears and to live more authentically in the present.

This hub is part of a series on emotional health. If you found it useful, I recommend you read the other hubs in the series.


Further reading and references

New Scientist article on the Manhattan Memory Project

Daniel Greenberg’s paper: President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01

A definition of Flashbulb Memories


More by this Author


36 comments

cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

Excellent hub! Where you say, "what's the point of holding a grudge?" because our memories are inaccurate makes me think: if we all stopped to think about that one statement, there could be world peace...or something like that. :) Voted up and SHARING.


BRIAN SLATER profile image

BRIAN SLATER 4 years ago from Nottingham Uk

Very good hub Melovy. When certain situations arise in life, stress has role to play in how well we remember things. Secondly some people have a selective memory in recalling what did or didn't happen.


mljdgulley354 profile image

mljdgulley354 4 years ago

I write about what I remember as a child and a mother. For the record I tell everyone "It's my story and I am going to tell it" that is because what I remember and what the rest of my family remember most of the time is not exact.


Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

Sometimes it's distressing to realize that our memories are so inaccurate. I find that I sometimes have no recollection of events that my children remember from their childhoods, and I feel as if a slice of my life has disappeared. Your article was fascinating reading, and helps us to better understand why people give different accounts of events that happened years ago. Voted up and interesting!


davenstan profile image

davenstan 4 years ago

My memory is not as reliable these days as I would like since I suffer from having sleepless nights with my little one.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi cclitgirl,

Yes, your thoughts on this are very much how I was thinking. And the great thing is that world peace starts with every one of us. We have the power to make a difference to our own lives and those around us. I have been questioning my beliefs for years, and have seen firsthand how it’s possible to get memories completely wrong, yet when I still got a jolt when read about the research I’ve highlighted in this hub.

Thanks very much for stopping by, for your comment and of course for sharing!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Brian,

I agree stress plays a role in how well we remember things - and on what we ‘absorb' in the first place. When our second daughter was in hospital my husband and I would have a meeting with a doctor and come away with 2 different versions of what had been said. With both of us there we were able to get a better picture of how she was doing. I think everyone has a selective memory to be honest, though maybe some more so than others!

Thanks for your comment.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Mijdgulley354, your method sounds a good one, acknowledging that it is only your side of things and no memory is exact. Thanks for your comment.


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

I'm bookmarking this hub! I'll need to keep it where I'll remember to read it when needed. Voted UP!!!


Rastamermaid profile image

Rastamermaid 4 years ago from Universe

Interesting hub,voted useful, and up!

No two people will remember the same incident exactly the same,people change things to their benefit,want to forget it all together,or lose their faulty actions in the replay.Older people sometimes just forget.

Funny but I take notes,leave notes,and post its are everywhere in my home. Something about writing it down physically a couple times leaves mental notes in your head.

Probably the reason I go through a journal a month.What I do find interesting when I go back through my journals,you can feel the emotions from that event through the words.Also you'll find the true root of the problem because you are now removed from situation and you're looking at it with a clear view.

Thanks for sharing Melovy!

Respect!


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Very interesting.I know my brain does not function well at all under stress. I could relate to your story well, as I have had a car stolen before.It was a terrible experience! Voted up and SHARING!


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

This is a good analysis of the fallacy of memory. That's why veteran cops like to question several witnesses because they know that one person's memory of an event probably won't be accurate. Voting this Up and Interesting.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Stephanie, It can be disconcerting to realise our memories are inaccurate, which is probably why some people go on sticking to their stories, even after all evidence to the contrary. I can see it could feel upsetting not to remember things your kids do, because it’s nice to have shared memories. But I also think it’s freeing to realise our memories aren’t set in stone, because it allows us to focus on what’s here now.

I’m glad you found this interesting, and thanks for your thoughtful comment.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi davenstan, yes, that does tend to have an effect on memory! I remember it well - or do I?

Thanks for your comment.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Sunshine, and glad you found it useful.


RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Fascinating Melovy! I am so interested in this topic:) I have read lots about those "time slices." You did a fabulous job here and so interesting! I remember when the Challenger accident happened! That day...I knew it was one of those shocking moments I would NEVER completely forget.

It is interesting how people can change their memories and do think they are accurate -- but really aren't.

Great job!!!! Love it! I am linking it to mine! Thank you!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

@ Rastamermaid

Yes, exactly we all remember things differently, and it seems we even change that over time - at time probably because as you say we want to forget. I journal a lot too, though less often now I write on HP. It is interesting to look back, and as you say often you can see things more clearly when removed for the situation. Thanks for your comment.

(love your username btw!)


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

This isn't fair! I'm sixty-three years old and my memory is slowly but surely leaving me, and here you are reminding me of that fact. :) Great hub and quite interesting and engaging.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks alocsin, for your kind comment, and for adding to the hub with some useful information. And thanks to for the vote up!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi RHW,

Yeah, I thought it was fascinating, so glad you do too. And thanks for your very kind comment, and for the link.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Yes Billybuc, it was aimed at you!! LOL. Actually did you know that there has also been research done on memory and ageing: and elderly people reminded of that stereotype just before doing a memory test do worse than those who aren’t reminded. So you probably remember MORE than you think you do! And if I remember rightly, many of the people in the Challenger study were students, so they were young and got it wrong.

Glad you enjoyed the hub and thanks for your fun comment.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

I did not know that Melovy but I feel better already. :)


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

billybuc, glad to hear that and you’re welcome. Maybe I’ll write a hub about it!


kj force profile image

kj force 4 years ago from Florida

Strange how you should decide to write this article..just last week I was talking to my brother and sister regarding an incident from our childhood years. Neither of them perceived the incident as I did and most of it was incorrect( on their part)even the people involved were not correct. Being it had more of an effect on them and their lives, they evidently had chosen to eradicate it from their memory.this really hit home, well written...very interesting take..thanks


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Thanks The Finance Hub, glad you enjoyed the hub and layout.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi kj force, thanks for adding your story, it’s great to get these examples on the hub. Gla you found it interesting, and thanks for stopping by.


Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 4 years ago from West of England

Interesting Hub. Unfortunately, the truth about memory and its inaccuracies affects the abilities of our justice system to get to the truth too. Juries believe witnesses' memories without question, and sometimes an eyewitness memory alone is enough to put someone in prison.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Keri,

I’m glad you found the hub interesting and your comment is also interesting. I must admit I don’t know a huge lot about the judicial process as although I got called for jury service last year I wasn’t needed. I didn't realise that witnesses’ statements can still sometimes be enough for a conviction. I thought things had moved on now that we have DNA testing, but from what you’re saying that’s not always so. Thanks for your comment.


Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 4 years ago from West of England

I do believe things are getting better. Memory experts are being brought into courtrooms more I think, to put things into context for juries. In something like a rape case, DNA gets straight to the truth, but where there's a murder for instance, there's not always such clear evidence to test. I'm no expert in this, but have become interested in it, and the balance between prosecution and defense arguments.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi again Keri,

Looking forward to reading your hub on your findings! :-)

And glad to hear things are getting better.


marshacanada profile image

marshacanada 4 years ago from Vancouver BC

Thanks Melovy for this excellent hub. I will link it to my hub on the nature of memory.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Marshcanada,

Thanks very much for your comment and link. I will look up your hub.


daisynicolas profile image

daisynicolas 4 years ago from Alaska

Brilliantly explained. Now, I could understand more why memory is there and gone.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi daisynicolas,

Thank you for your very kind comment and glad you enjoyed the hub.


Phil Plasma profile image

Phil Plasma 4 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

Not having the best of memories, I find it reassuring that I probably shouldn't be relying on them too much anyhow.

Interesting read, earning you a vote up and an interesting.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Phil Plasma,

Thanks very much for your comment and vote up and glad you found this reassuring and interesting.

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